The Jonestown Mass Suicide

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By — Njeri Jackson

Jim Jones, the founder of Jonestown, was a cult leader that ran a group called the People’s Temple of the Disciples of Christ during the years between 1954 and 1978. Jones spent many years not knowing his path in life and decided to join the ministry at Somerset Methodist Church. He gained a reputation for being an evangelist and healer, but was interested in racially integrated services, which upset the rest of the Church. He left the church and formed the Wings of Deliverance church, later to be known as the People’s Temples.

Jones began gaining followers and moved with them to Ukiah and Redwood Valley located in California. He continued to preach more, increasing the amount of followers he had. He promised a utopia-like situation for his followers. Many were swayed by his words and offered many of their possessions to him; he was like a Messiah-type figure to them. He heavily discouraged sexual and romantic relationships with an emphasis on community. They were recommended to live in communal buildings and he tried to break familial bonds to make himself the “father of all.” While he encouraged this, he shared romantic relationships himself with his wife Marceline, Carolyn Layton, and possibly Grace Stoen. He also had a belief in a communist-type society with racial equality, which attracted a large amount of black followers to his group.

Jones bought land in Guyana in 1974 where he aimed to start a utopia society of Jonestown. Building the actual town was not easy: workers were laboring for long days with harsh punishments for questioning their leader, as well as confiscation of much that connected them to home. Jones’ health was beginning to be set on the backburner around this time; his mental health plumented and he developed an addiction to drugs. He became incredibly sure that the government and many others were out to destroy him. A group of concerned relatives and former members led by Leo Ryan came to Jonestown to investigate the establishment. Ryan was attacked by one of Jones’ men after Jones became upset with some of followers trying to leave with Ryan. Jones ordered their killing on the airstrpi as they tried to leave.  Much of the group was murdered or injured.

That same day, November 17, 1978, Jones gathered his group and commanded the commitment of suicide among the community. Parents and nurses used syringes to get children to drink a poisonous juice concoction that led to their death. The adults drank a poison punch, voluntarily or at gunpoint, that killed them. The mixtures were filled with cyanide and valium; only a few members managed to escape into the nearby jungle. By the time authorities arrived there were around 900 deaths, 276 were children. Jones died around this time, either by being shot in the head, or he shot himself in the head.